Runaway Bride

It’s hardly a compliment to say that Runaway Bride is better than Pretty Woman. That odious exercise in bad faith was a romantic comedy so smarmy it required a shower to wash away its stink. It was the nadir of its genre, a film so cynical and manipulative that Runaway Bride, its virtual sequel, couldn’t be worse if it was directed by Ed Wood himself.

That’s unfair to Wood. Wood made better films than Garry Marshall. Marshall’s nothing if not competent: the film is lushly photographed, well paced, and decently acted. It’s state of the art mediocrity, cannily packaged to wring every emotion while offering bland reassurance and no offense. Runaway Bride wants so badly to be liked it’s less a movie than a lapdog.

Marshall’s roots are in sitcom, and it shows. His storytelling has all the finesse and pungency of your obnoxious drunken uncle’s slurred war stories at Thanksgiving. He labors every point, underlines each emotion with a vapid close-up and a music cue to tug at the heart. One could follow the story blindfolded, listening to nothing but the music: it’s that over-determined, that scared that you might feel something other than what’s intended. And if you blinked or left for popcorn, just wait – Marshall will repeat everything you missed. Plus there’s a recap over the closing credits, just in case.

The opening sequence sets the tone. Julia Roberts, stunning in a wedding gown, rides through breathtaking autumn woods on a stallion, accompanied by U2’s "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For." It tells us everything we need to know about her – she’s young, beautiful, freewheeling and undecided – with all the subtlety of a jackhammer to the head. It looks and feels precisely like an ad for Secret deodorant.

Richard Gere’s New York columnist is then introduced with a close-up of Mark Twain. This is an insidious leitmotif: whenever Marshall wants to let us know that Gere is a man of substance, he drops the name of a dead genius. Gere is explicitly associated with Twain, Yeats and Miles Davis. (In an unintentionally hilarious scene, Roberts tries to win him over by giving him a "rare" Davis album. The film is so lazy and inept that we see her handing him a battered copy of Kind of Blue. He purrs over it, because "You never see a copy of this in good condition." Kind of Blue hasn’t been out of print in the forty years since it was released. A copy in good shape is about as hard to find as a Gap store.) The hubris here is shocking – invoking the names of great artists to make your half-realized character look deep is not only lazy, it’s a desecration.

Marshall panders shamelessly with innumerable cute shots of animals and children . We get two different sets of adorable triplets, several babies, a pair of twins, all presented so as to force a gushing "Oooooh." He get his biggest laughs from a randy granny. This is sitcom territory, but it lacks even the crass virtues of competent television. The spirit is closer to Marshall’s own "Joanie Loves Chachi" then to "Seinfeld."

The performers do what they can. Joan Cusack is the best thing in the film, as she usually is. She has a gift for enlivening cliches, taking terrible ideas and goosing them with her perfect timing and elastic face. In this film, she’s called on again and again to prop up best friend Julia Roberts with a perky smile. It’s an awful, thankless role, yet Cusack makes it work anyway, running endless delightful variations on the only thing Marshall’s given her to do.

Julia Roberts is disappointing. She was marvelous in her last comedy, My Best Friend’s Wedding. In that film, the screenwriters provided her with real dilemmas and pitted her against complex antagonists. She never relied on her charm and she was willing to be unpleasant. This deepened the film and made for what remains her best performance. Here she has no such luck: Gere’s only competition for her arm is a football coach who might as well be wearing a sign reading "Loser." She’s left with nothing at all to do but smile her dazzling smile or pout when she’s sad. It’s a waste of a fine actress.

Gere suffers most in the film. He’s required to play an inane conception: the cynical, sexist columnist who learns how to love. This requires him to be relentlessly smug for the first hour, then unrelievedly moony for the last. He’s awful in both modes – all that can be said of this performance is that he looks good in Armani.

This is a profoundly cynical movie about the need to overcome cynicism. It invites us to feel superior to the small town life it revels in. There are half a dozen belittling references to "The Andy Griffith Show." Yet the film milks that small town for nostalgic warmth shamelessly. This isn’t the ambivalence of Preston Sturges’ Americana, where a sincere appreciation of the value of that lifestyle is tempered by an understanding of its accompanying small-mindedness. This is cashing in on our longing for simpler times while avoiding the risk of looking naive while doing so. These are terrible times indeed when a Hollywood movie won’t own up to its sentimentality.

Gary Mairs